When most people hear the word “Carnival” their mind races to the world-famous parades of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. However, unbeknownst to many, Colombia has its own world-famous Carnival celebration held in the Atlantic city of Barranquilla.
Carnival arrived to Colombia during the Spanish colonization period, but only really began to flourish in the 1800s. Even so, it was not until 1903 that the first official parade was put together in Barranquilla (http://www.carnavaldebarranquilla.org). Since then, the Carnival celebrations have only gotten bigger and better!
It’s important to know that even though, officially, Carnival is celebrated for four days (beginning the Saturday before Ash Wednesday and lasting until what is commonly called “Fat Tuesday”), the Carnival season begins as soon as Christmas is over. I say “season,” because, like Christmas, Carnival is celebrated for more than just the four official days of festivities.
The Carnival season is really split into three parts: Carnival preparations, Pre-Carnival and Carnival.
For some people Carnival preparations begin as soon as Christmas is over, and for others it does not begin until after Epiphany. Regardless, during Carnival preparations the entire city is decorated for Carnival. To understand the decorations, you need to know the main characters of Carnaval: la Negrita Puloy, la Marimonda, el Monocuco, el Toro, el Rey Momo, and el Congo along with the Queen of Carnival. Images of these characters make up the majority of the Carnival decorations, but people also use bright colored streamers, giant replicas of tropical flowers, and the colors representative of the city of Barranquilla: black, red, green, and yellow to decorate their house and apartments, and to adorn supermarkets, shopping malls, and the city itself.
With the city officially decorated and ready for Carnival, the pre-Carnival season is inaugurated with two events. The first one is the Izada de la Bandera (the “Raising of the Flag”) where the Queen of Carnival is officially decreed in charge of the city for the duration of Carnival. The second event is known as la Lectura del Bando. In this event, the mayor of Barranquilla hands over the keys of the city and the Queen of Carnival establishes the “empire of happiness” through the reading of a document full of specific rules of what to do and not to do during Carnival. This year, the Izada de la Bandera took place on January 18th, and the Lectura del Bando on January 19th.
Once the pre-Carnival season has begun, you will also see people consistently dressing up as Carnival characters. My favorite is la Negrita Puloy, and she is one of the most common costumes you see as it is very easy, and fashionable, for young girls and women to wear the famous red and white polka dot headband. More than adults, you will see children completely decked out in costumes both at Carnival events as well as during their normal activities (e.g. buying groceries with their parents, walking to the bus stop, eating at a restaurant, etc…).
During the pre-Carnival season, there are cultural events related to Carnival happening around the city such as the Carnival of Arts (http://www.fundacionlacueva.org/carnavaldelasartes.php) and Ruedas de Cumbia (Cumbia wheels) in some of the traditional neighborhoods of the city. There are also a series of parades that occur around the city. One of the most famous pre-Carnival parades is that of la Guacherna. This parade is based around the song “La Guacherna” by Esthercita Forero that resurrected a tradition begun in the early 20th century, but that was abandoned for quite some time. This parade occurs the Friday before Carnival, and you can really feel the energy of Carnival beginning to form by this point. Other parades that happen during pre-Carnival are: el Garabato, the Children’s Carnaval Parade, the Gay Guacherna, and the Children’s Garabato, among others.
In all the parades—both pre-Carnival and Carnival—expect to be sprayed with foam or have cornstarch throw at you. These are both traditional “weapons” of Carnival, and become integral to fully celebrating.
Pre-Carnival ends, and the official celebration of Carnival begins, the Saturday before Ash Wednesday with the most famous and popular of the parades: la Batalla de Flores (The Battle of the Flowers). This parade is a sold out event—if you do not buy a ticket beforehand, it will be nearly impossible to find a spot. On Sunday, the major event is the Gran Parada de Tradición (the Grand Parade of Tradition) and on Monday the Gran Parada de Comparsas (the Grand Parade of Dance Groups). The parades on Sunday and Monday, although not as popular as la Batalla de Flores, are wonderful parades. They showcase a wide range of traditional Colombian dances (mapalé, cumbia, salsa, merecumbé, and merengue among others) and, unlike la Batalla de Flores, you can easily arrive to these parades without a ticket and still find a good spot to watch from. The last Carnival parade occurs on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The parade is called Joselito se va con las Cenizas (Joselito disappears with the ashes or, sometimes, The Death of Joselito). This parade is probably the least popular and least attended. Contrary to the other parades, Joselito se va con las Cenizas is a sad parade that mournes the death of Joselito. Most barranquilleros (natives of Barranquilla) will tell you the parade is not worth going to. However, if you are looking to see a different side of Carnival, this is the parade for you!
Carnival really is an incredible celebration—it engulfs the city of Barranquilla and creates an air of festivity that begins long before the actual celebration begins and continues to linger even once the parades have finished and the decorations have been removed. In 2008, it was officially and rightfully inscribed in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?lg=en&pg=00011&RL=00051). It is a beautiful expression of the fusion of cultures found on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and is most definitely an event worth attending.
As we say here on the coast: ¡Quién lo vive es quién lo goza! (Those who live it are the ones who enjoy it!).
Paige M. Poole
- Beyond Rio: Party and experience multi-cultural Colombian carnivals and festivals (uncovercolombia.wordpress.com)
- Colombia prepares for world-famous ‘Carnival de Barranquilla’ (photoblog.nbcnews.com)